By Kenneth Lin
|JR West's Shinkansen Series 500 in service between Tokyo and Hakata/Kyushu running at a maximum speed of 300 km/h.|
|Inside Shinkansen Series 500 cab.|
My travels to
Altogether, I have visited Japan six times for a total of approximately thirteen weeks. Disregarding the first trip, which was at the age of nine in 1969, subsequent trips have taken place in 1984 (one month), 1989 (two weeks), 1992 (two weeks), 1993 (two weeks) and July 1997 (11 days). Thus, collectively, these trips have provided me with insights as to Japan's railway system before and after the formation of the JR Group of companies.
Anniversary of JR Group of companies
Nowhere else, except perhaps in India, is the cultural identity of a country so closely identified with the network of passenger railways as in Japan. Indeed, without Japan's comprehensive network of passenger rail lines would it even be possible for Japan's concentrated urban development and population density to even exist. Railways are every bit as essential to Japan as irrigation canals and aqueducts are to California for its continued growth and development.
1997 marks the
Tenth Anniversary of the Japan Railways Group of companies formed by
the fragmenting of the former Japanese National Railways (JNR) into,
among other entities, several operating companies. Where previously JNR
provided passenger rail service throughout four islands-- Kyushu,
Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido-- today this task is taken up by JR
Kyushu, West Japan Railways, East Japan Railways, JR Shikoku and JR
Hokkaido. A chief reason for this break up was to "privatise" and
reorganise the massive debt and obligations which had accumulated under
years of JNR operation. A second reason, however, was to foster a new,
more customer-focused, and entrepreneurial spirit into the newly
created group of railways. Of course, this would be initially staffed
by ex-JNR employees at the time of privatisation.
So, ten years after
privatisation, have the various JR operating railways become more
customer-focused? And how has the creation of the JR group of railways
affected U.S. travelers using JR trains? Have there been substantiative
service improvements, or has much of the change been cosmetic?
can today's North American customer traveling to Japan expect?
A decade of improvements
Thinking back and comparing my 1997 trip to my 1984 trip, from an overall customer service point of view, I would say that the improvements in the JR group of railways have been dramatic. Even more remarkable is that these dramatic improvements have been achieved against a solid base of service which already existed prior to 1987.
The Japan Railways
group of operating companies have built upon its traditional base and
strengths including an enviable safety operating record, consistently
courteous employees, and a well deserved reputation for fastidious
on-time train performance. To varying degrees, the new JR entities have
injected imaginative new concepts into their respective railway
operations. In 1984, passenger rolling stock, while still interesting,
tended to be less imaginative and comfortable than today, with some
older railcars bordering on spartan.
were more functional then, with less attention paid to aesthetics and
passenger amenities. I recall distinctly in 1984, that there was little
difference between the comfort of Green Class (first class) and
Ordinary (second class) railcar cabins, except for slightly wider seats
and increased seat pitch. On-board service in the JNR era, while
uniformly excellent, seemed less entrepreneurial than today.
Today, the JR fleet
has been infused with a number of new and incredibly imaginative
railcars and trainsets. Some of the most imaginative trains which I
have seen during my travels to 116 countries operate over Japanese
rails. Many train stations have been revitalised, brightened and
present a more pleasing appearance to welcome travelers. Some of the
refurbished and newly constructed stations are architecturally
noteworthy, and JR era stations feature more customer amenities than
The past decade has
seen a raising of the comfort standards for both Ordinary and Green
Class on the newest railcars via the introduction of more comfortable
seats, improved interior ergonomics, and higher quality interior
fittings. Today there is a distinct difference between the two classes.
Green Class passengers enjoy greater seat pitch, greater variety of
interior configurations (including private compartments), more
comfortable seat designs and styling, improved interior cabin ambience,
and on some trains, complimentary at-seat beverage service from
hostesses. Certain trains such as the Tsubame, Tsubasa, Super View
Odoriko, etc. offer additional amenities in Green Class such as at-seat
music, while other trains such as the Super Raicho, West JR Series 100
Shinkansen, and Super Hitachi offer individual TV screens for Green
Class customers. These amenities were unknown in the JNR days.
My impression is
that the sum of these improvements have raised the quality and value of
the railway product relative to the ticket price paid. Discounting
fluctuations in the Dollar to Yen exchange rates (which are beyond the
control of JR), for US travelers, this translates into improved service
and better value for money. From a travel agent's point of view, this
makes the Japanese trains an easier service to sell.
In my conversations with clients (as a travel agent) and in casual conversations with friends, acquaintances and colleagues, there emerges one reoccurring perception about travel in Japan-- that it is viewed by almost everyone as being very expensive! Mention Japan and visions of $5.00 cups of coffee, $60.00 melons, $300.00 per night hotel rooms and the like, instantly spring to mind.
The August 25, 1997
issue of Travel Weekly Magazine (a travel agent industry publication)
even reported on this matter with an article (enclosed) entitled "An
Affordable Vacation in Japan? It can be done... Really!"
The perception that
Japan is expensive is even reinforced by those who have travelled to
Japan on business. This is understandable since such an expense-account
paid trip offers a distorted (and inflated) view of affordable travel
in Japan. The typical U.S. business traveler gamely paying expense
account prices at four and five star hotel rates, and eating at
restaurants designed for the expense account customer, would naturally
just assume that tourist travel must be similarly expensive.
When I have
attempted to explain to even worldly travelers that travel in Japan
need not be expensive if they followed a few simple guidelines, and
that Japanese prices can be comparable to New York City prices, the
reaction is one of disbelief. Essentially, there are four main
categories of expenses when travelling as a tourist. They are:
Comparable bargains are available for travelers purchasing Ordinary
Class Japan Rail Passes (28,300 yen) versus Ordinary Class roundtrip
Tokyo to Osaka Shinkansen tickets (27,500 yen).
intercity travel expenses predetermined and already budgeted, travelers
to Japan can then focus on making the remaining categories of trip
expenses-- food, lodging, entertainment-- affordable. Here again, the
Japan Rail Pass can help.
Simply using the
pass exposes the travelers to the world of trains, their train stations
and the Japanese way of life. Just as in India, railways in Japan are a
microcosm reflective of the greater society they serve. Within this
world of trains and stations, tasty and affordable food, varied
shopping, entertainment (i.e. bars, lounges) and a range of lodging can
unfamiliar with the Japanese language and signs, at all but the
smallest railway halts, bi-lingual signs (in English) are posted
consistently and thoughtfully. I venture to say that English
directional signposting is more consistent in JR stations and Japanese
subway stations than throughout New York City's subway stations where
English is the primary language.
As for finding
affordable and tasty food, merely window shopping at train station
restaurants will reveal a world of western and Japanese food catering
to all budgets. Unlike US restaurants, many Japanese restaurants
feature elaborate window displays of plastic replicas of the meals
served, with prices helpfully added. Daily set meals are often
available, and they offer extra value. If you can't make yourself
understood to your server, you can always point to what you want to
eat. For those who are rushed, or for the budget traveler, bowls of
steaming noodles are ubiquitous at Japanese train stations for 300-500
JR Railways has
expanded this world of choice by actively developing new retail and
dining opportunities within the larger train stations.
To be certain,
train stations in major Japanese cities were often centers of activity
during JNR days and contained a variety of shops and restaurants.
However, infused by the new JR entrepreneurial spirit, the traditional
role of the train station in Japanese cities has been further
reinforced and anchored by additional complimentary urban development.
Surplus railway real estate, such as unused freight rail yards and
sheds, have been productively redeveloped into new hotels, department
stores, shopping malls and/or office complexes. Typically these
developments are directly connected to stations, much as how Grand
Central Terminal in New York is the locus of commercial development.
using the Japan Rail Pass
Given the inherent flexibility of the Japan Rail Pass which allows customers to come and go as they please, the rail pass can help keep travel costs down by supporting the following money saving travel strategies:
Marketing the Japan Rail Pass
Compared to the cost and the effort required to purchase individual train tickets, Japan Rail Passes offer many advantages. When marketing the JR pass within North America, it could be worth reminding potential customers about their benefits, including:
Suggestions for improving the Japan Rail Pass
While I have used a Japan Rail Pass on each trip to Japan (except my first trip at age nine), I would like to offer the following suggestions on how to refine an already good product.
Kenneth Lin is
the vice president of the National Railway Historical Soceity (NRHS)
New York Chapter.
This article and all the photos contained copyright Kenneth Lin.
If you have any comments, please e-mail to iyayospamKenneth.Lin@Alum.MIT.Edu remove the protective prefix 'iyayospam' before composing.